A high-level Brussels conference was told that it is a matter of not “if” Islamic extremists launch another deadly Paris-style atrocity in Europe but “when.” The fight against Jihadism is, today, the “main threat” facing Europe but there are no “quick fixes” to eradicate the problem, the conference heard.
Facing an “apocalyptic” challenge, the only answer is to work with the Muslim communities rather than against them, insists senior European Commission official Olivier Luyckx.
Luyckx, Head of the Terrorism and Crisis Management Unit in the Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs directorate, was partly responding to the widely condemned call by US presidential candidate Donald Trump for Muslims to be barred entry to America.
With Belgium recently subject to lockdown in the wake of the events in Paris, Luyckx also cautioned against “over reacting” to recent terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam, saying, “We must keep our response proportionate.”
The debate, “Picking up the pieces after Paris”, was organised by the European Foundation for Democracy, a Brussels-based policy institute, the European Policy Centre and the Counter Extremism Project, in conjunction with the King Baudouin Foundation.
Opening the “very timely” discussion, Amanda Paul, of the European Policy Centre, said the Paris attacks were another reminder of the “unprecedented” challenge posed by Jihadi extremists.
The exchange of views, she explained, sought to discuss the root causes of the problem and possible solutions.
In her opening remarks, Zainab Al-Suwaij, herself a Muslim and co-founder of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), said that events such as Paris, and further back, 9/11, served as “reminders” that the problems posed by radicalisation and extremism were closer to home than many realised. Islamist ideology is behind all the terrorism incidents that we have seen in Europe, America and all over the Islamic world she said and Muslims are the first victims of this ideology.
She added that it was critical to remember that we are not at war with Islam but with the radical, extremist ideology of political Islam. Despite the best efforts of ISIS to present it as such, there is no clash of civilisations between Islam and the rest of the world she said.
She explained how the AIC works on some 75 college campuses in the US where it seeks to raise awareness of the phenomenon of Islamic radicalisation.
“These people kill and destroy simply because you do not agree with their ideology and the only solution is to unite against it, irrespective of background, religion and ethnicity.”
In his opening remarks, Pieter van Ostaeyen, a Belgian-based independent analyst on Jihadi movements in Syria and Iraq, said coalition air strikes on Syria was a contributory factor in the recent escalation in violence by so-called Islamic State.
“Attacking Europe had not previously been on their agenda but the bombing was like an invitation for them to attack us,” he noted.
Van Ostaeyen, who has studied the issue in Belgium, said that 550 Belgians, a “huge group,” were known to have left to join IS in Syria and Iraq, adding that 79 of these had been killed and 120 had returned to Belgium.
Much of the recruitment had been done in Belgium itself via social media, such as Facebook, and, in some cases, under the guise of “humanitarian aid.” He added that Sharia4Belgium played a key role in recruitment of foreign fighters for Syria.
He also pointed out that “only a small part” of the infamous IS media output pivoted towards violent videos such as beheadings, adding that much of the group’s propaganda machine highlighted the “fantastic life” supposedly offered by Islamic State.
“Of course, said Van Ostaeyen, “a lot of this is a cover. Life within IS is hellish.” He added that income of ISIS is in reality based on mafia-style taxation. Oil income is just 20% of their overall revenue stream, he said.
Another keynote speaker, Magnus Norell, a senior policy advisor with the European Foundation for Democracy, agreed with Van Ostaeyen that Western foreign policy had, in part, contributed to the current situation, describing it as partly “self inflicted.”
Norell told the debate, “Had the West intervened earlier (in the Syrian conflict) we probably would have suffered a lot less.”
He distances himself from those who suggest that social exclusion, poverty and unemployment were the main driving force for so many young Muslim men, and women, leaving Europe to fight in Syria.
“People are joining because they want to. It is their choice. Trying to say it is just down to social and economic reasons is a dangerous route to go down,” he said, pointing out that both Belgium and his native Sweden, two rich countries with established social systems were among those with, pro rata, the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria. This was backed up by Luyckx who added that social justice is never used by ISIS in their recruitment propaganda.
While IS poses a “more brutal version” than even al Qaeda, the idea of the Islamic caliphate is not new, he said, adding that “the writing has been on the wall for decades”.
Norell believes that currently a “civil war for ideas” is taking place within the whole Islamic community but argues that, with coalition bombing in Syria and Iraq intensified after the UK parliament voted to extend air strikes, it will be “impossible to bomb an ideology into oblivion.”
Outlining the counter-terrorism measures being taken by the Commission, Luyckx joined Norell in offering a rather pessimistic outlook, warning, “The fight against Islamic extremism is the biggest challenge Europe faces and there are no quick fixes.”
Warning that other atrocities are inevitable, he said, “It is not a question of if, but when and how.”
In a reference to the comments by Trump, currently the leading Republican candidate in the US election campaign, Luyckx emphasised the need to “work with Muslim communities, not against them” and pointed out that 99 per cent of the estimated 8m Muslims in Europe chose to do so “because they want to live in a democracy.”
However, he voiced concern about the continuing rise of far right groups in some parts of Europe, most recently witnessed with the success at the weekend of Front National in French regional elections, saying, “We are seeing a vicious circle of violence and extremism with a distorted version of Islam and Jihadi propaganda feeding into the propaganda of the far right. This is a very worrying trend.”
Measures taken by the EU to combat the Jihadi threat, he said, included the EU-wide “Radicalisation Awareness Network”, involving some 2,000 organisations. Efforts had also been taken to crack down on the financing of groups like IS, the means by which foreign fighters can move freely from one country to another and to remove “illegal and extremist” content from the internet, a favourite recruiting tool of extremists.
He cautioned that issues of national security remain the competence of member states, but added, “That, of course, is not to say that the Commission wishes to wash its hands of the problem and that is why we are working on different fronts.”
In a question and answer session, the panel was asked about the value of seeking to negotiate with IS to which Norell replied with a question himself, “What is the point? What would we talk about? To negotiate with them would be to give them a certain legitimacy. Is that what we want?”
Other members of the 100-strong audience commented that Islam has nothing to do with what ISIS practices; it is the pernicious Saudi Wahabbism doctrine and Iranian Shia extremism that have been exported overseas and that are the source of all the terrorism we are seeing. Norell replied that it has everything to do with Islam as all the violence is perpetrated in the name of Islam and it is not just Wahhabi doctrines that inspire it – the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is as much to blame. We should work with partners like moderate Muslim countries like Morocco, he said, who are pushing back on the theological front as well as on the security side.
By Martin Banks